Debates aren’t needed before the upcoming Nov. 8 election, according to the Republican candidates for the top two elected offices in Tarrant County.
Republicans Tim O’Hare and Phil Sorrells, who lead in fundraising, declined an invitation to the Fort Worth Report’s general election debate — mirroring national trends among front-running candidates. They also have so far declined every other debate since the primary season.
Candidates who are leading in fundraising often view debates as a waste of time and resources, said Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington.
“Leading candidates often don’t see debates as an advantage. It doesn’t necessarily allow them to emphasize the one or two talking points they want to communicate,” Marshall said.
Debates have long played a special role in American political races and became even more popular locally after candidates Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy sparred live on TV leading up to the 1960 presidential election.
Debates recently have been a feature of Tarrant County races, too. The Fort Worth Report and KERA held a debate in 2021 between then-mayoral candidates Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples and a primary debate earlier this year featuring the candidates for the county judge and criminal district attorney from both parties.
The growing trend away from debates could be attributed to a widening ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats, Marshall said. The Republican National Convention left the Commission on Presidential Debates in April, ending decades of bipartisan cooperation to ensure presidential debates endure.
“Engaged voters are typically firmly planted in their respective camps,” Marshall said.
It’s a troubling trend, said J.R. Labbe, a former editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
“To me, it says that they care nary a whit about being accountable to everyone,” Labbe said. “They have their marching orders from their parties, and they aren’t wavering from the playbook.”
In the county judge race, O’Hare said debates are not an efficient use of his time.
Both O’Hare and Peoples, the Democratic nominee for county judge, participated in a June forum titled “Leaders in Government,” held by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. The event allowed each candidate to speak, and then allowed 30 minutes for questions. Organizers did not consider it a debate.
“The people that come to the debate, 99% of them already know who they’re voting for,” O’Hare said. “Just spending time there answering questions for the benefit of the media, that can be answered when the media calls me on the phone, is just not time well spent.”
Peoples agreed to participate in the Report’s debate. While debates may not be the best way to reach undecided voters, Peoples said, constituents should mark their ballot with a clear idea of who they’re voting for.
“I believe that people who don’t want to have a debate feel like they have a strategic advantage,” Peoples said. “Because if they don’t say anything, then people don’t get to judge them… To me, that’s the cowardly way.”
Questions at candidate debates can also be slanted to favor one party or another, O’Hare said, noting he remembers the Report’s debate as being fair.
“It’s not very often that they’re very down the middle,” O’Hare said. “The amount of time you have to invest in debates, compared to the number of voters that you get to talk to, is just not a productive use of time.”
Sorrells, the Republican district attorney candidate, attributed his refusal directly to differences in ideology between him and his opponent, Democrat Tiffany Burks. He said his approach to the job is simple, following the letter of the law.
“In the primary, you had some finer details to make the difference, but the difference between me and my opponent, I mean, they’re big differences,” Sorrells said.
Sorrells pointed to the nearly 17 debates he participated in the primaries, and he said he didn’t feel they were particularly helpful to the voters.
“I don’t know if there was any great enlightenment,” Sorrells said.
Burks agreed to participate in the Report’s debate.
“I think it’s unfortunate that he believes that the fact that we may have different ideologies, it in some way prohibits us from being able to share what those ideologies are to our voters,” Burks said.
Debating with an opponent is one way to remain accountable to voters, Burks said.
“If the citizens of Tarrant County have questions for me or concerns for me, as the person who is going to have to answer them eventually, I think it is my responsibility to make myself available so that they can ask questions,” Burks said.
In the absence of debates among candidates, journalists have to fill the gap and provide information about the candidates to the voters, Marshall said. Since refusing to participate in debates is a growing trend, this is likely to become more common, he added.
“If the goal is to win the election, debates are not a candidate’s most effective tool,” Marshall said.
Despite the challenges debates pose to candidates, they are an irreplaceable tool for voters looking to make an informed decision at the ballot box, Labbe said.
“Debates are where you can actually gauge someone’s maturity and their gravitas and how they interact with somebody else,” Labbe said. “It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge worth taking.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.